I knock lightly on the slightly open door before pushing it open. My teenage daughter is lounging on her bed, laptop open, Franz Ferdinand crooning from the Bluetooth speaker. I can’t tell if she’s doing homework, cruising Urban Outfitters for a tank top, or messaging her friends. Most likely, it’s some combination of the three.
“Hey kiddo,” I say as I perch on the chair in the corner of her small room. She raises her eyebrows but says nothing, continuing her on-screen quest (whatever it is).
I don’t have anything in particular to tell her, and she’s not offering up any conversation. A few minutes tick by in awkward silence. It’s pretty clear she doesn’t want me around, but I’m not budging until we make contact.
“How’s school going?” I say. There’s only more silence.
“Mom,” she finally groans. “It’s fine.”
I wait for her to look up and shoot me her signature toothy grin. It’s not happening.
“Okay then…great,” I say, somewhat at a loss. “Dinner’s in 10 minutes.”
It’s only when I stand up to leave and let out a dramatic sigh that she lifts her chin and rolls her eyes at me like I’m the biggest loser on the planet. I try to be cool and roll my eyes right back at her as if her rejection doesn’t sting. Really though, I feel like I’m being blown off by the popular girl who was once my BFF.
No matter what the parenting books say about separation being a typical phase of adolescence, getting thrown out of the inner circle sucks. In fact, feeling disconnected from your child, no matter their age, is one of the worst feelings in the world.
I don’t expect to know about every interaction and relationship in my daughters’ lives — I don’t know the details about what goes on every hour at school, for example — but it’s a serious downer when I sense my older daughters are holding back their feelings or deeper thoughts. While this happens more often with my teen, my tween is fiercely independent, often following her sister’s lead.
The rational side of me gets it. I’m no longer their go-to for inside jokes, fashion advice, or even basic day-to-day updates. That coveted position mostly belongs to their friends now. I only get the really intense stuff, like the stress and anxiety over schoolwork or frustration over particularly bad bedhead.
Occasionally, the older one issues a general statement, proclaiming it a “good day.” Asking for details doesn’t reveal much, other than my desperation to connect, which totally turns her off. I’ve learned to stay nonchalant, even though I’m hungrily waiting for her to share more.
The fretting parent side of me worries that something more complicated than the need for independence is at play. What if my kid is depressed but too ashamed to tell me? Is she being bullied? Maybe she’s struggling in math class and doesn’t know how to ask for help.
It’s not that we don’t get along. For the most part, we do. There’s a lot of love between us, and I always let her know that she can confide in me if she wants to, that I won’t judge, and that I can, in fact, be helpful — despite my current “uncool” mom status.
I remember having a secret life when I was younger. It was innocent enough and started around middle school when I’d walk through town after school with my best friend. We’d see the high school kids smoking or catch a couple making out behind the pizza place. Parties happened in basements where the lights were low and the music slow. When my mom asked about my day or a party or a test, my standard answer was, “Fine.” I kept the details to myself. Carving out my own life and handling experiences without adults hovering at the edges felt important and empowering.
I want that for my daughters as well, but I also miss them. I know peppering them with questions doesn’t often go over very well or yields very short and pointed answers. I’m yearning for more of the good stuff: the way they feel, what they hope for, what they’re worried about.
My latest strategy is to simply be available when they’re ready and wanting to connect. I spend my late afternoons centrally located in the kitchen, cooking and working, making noise so they know I’m there. It’s not easy waiting for them to come to me, but it every once in a while, it pays off.
The other day, my daughter came home wearing an unfamiliar sweatshirt. When I asked her about it, she blushed a little and said it belonged to a certain boy. I smiled but said nothing, waiting. Instead of heading to her room to start on her homework, she sat at the kitchen counter and told me about this boy and how she came to be wearing his sweatshirt. I sliced cucumbers and listened, letting her fill the space between us, grateful to connect with her for those few minutes.